The American Airlines pilot who died Monday on a flight was an alarming experience for passengers and crew, but safety experts say passengers were never at risk because first officers are trained to fly airliners alone.
Louise Anderson, a passenger heading from Reno to Boston via Phoenix, said she had dozed off on the flight. She said the mood on board was somber and she commended the crew’s handling of the situation.
“What I woke up to was the flight attendant telling us we were making an emergency landing because the pilot was ill,” she said.
While the death of a pilot during a flight could raise concern among uneasy fliers, the captain and first officer are each capable of flying commercial airliners alone. The Federal Aviation Administration requires two crew members in the cockpit at all times for just such an emergency.
Airline pilots get two physicals per year after 40 years old, as required by the FAA and are typically healthy people, said John Cox, a former airline pilot and now a consultant as head of Safety Operating Systems. FAA also has a mandatory retirement age of 65.
Before the medical appointment, the pilot fills out a medical history through part of the FAA’s website called MedXPress. Besides typical physical characteristics, the questions ask about medications, ailments such as vision or heart problems and mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.
A doctor — called an aviation medical examiner — then meets with the pilot to check vision, lungs, heart, abdomen, extremities for swelling that could signal heart failure and urine for possible diabetes or renal failure.
Commercial pilots aren’t allowed to have insulin-dependent diabetes, for example. But pilots can fly with high blood pressure that is treated with medication and with coronary artery disease that is closely monitored.
Pilots rarely die during flights. Seven pilots for U.S. airlines and one charter pilot have died during flights since 1994, according to FAA.
A 2005 study in Flight Safety Digest of pilot incapacitation from 1993 to 1998 found 50 health incidents involving airline pilots, based on FAA data. Pilots were incapacitated in 39 incidents and impaired in 11, during 85 million hours of flying during the period studied.
The most frequent causes of incapacitation were loss of consciousness in 11 cases, gastrointestinal in seven cases, neurological in six cases, cardiac in five cases and urological in three cases, according to the study.
Only two of the incidents resulted in accidents, neither of which were fatal, with one because of visual impairment from contact lenses and the other from fatigue, according to the study.
“In-flight medical events in U.S. airline pilots were very rare; resulting aircrew deaths were even more rare and resulting aircraft accidents were extremely rare,” the study concluded.
Flight 550 was on an Airbus A320 and had 147 passengers and five crewmembers, according to American. The flight spent about four hours on the ground in Syracuse and then continued on to Boston after a replacement crew arrived to the aircraft in Syracuse.